Few films can claim a bumpier, more public production ride or worse crash landing than “Air Strike,” purportedly the most costly Chinese feature ever when it was shot — which was three years ago. Since then, it’s undergone several title changes, delays, and most cripplingly become part of a wide-ranging tax evasion scandal in which actress Fan Bingbing was convicted for financial fraud. As a result, the film’s Chinese release was canceled outright. In the U.S., Lionsgate scaled its primary distribution plans back to on demand, with subsidiary Grindstone handling a much-reduced theatrical launch. Oh, and a movie shot in 3D now appears to be showing nowhere in that format.
Of course, most viewers roped in by the promise of Bruce Willis in a WW2 combat movie (with Mel Gibson conspicuously listed as production “consultant”) will be oblivious to all that offscreen drama. What’s onscreen, however, is bound to make them suspect something went awry along the way. Eye-blink-brief appearances by prominently billed cast names are hardly the only truncated element in a hectic mishmash that reportedly ran five hours in an early cut, and now clocks in at just more than 90 minutes.
Conceived as an epic 70th-anniversary ode to “the Allied victory over fascism,” “Air Strike” retains elements of evident expanse and expense. Yet the final result is such a compromised jumble it’s hard to tell what its full original intentions might have been. Several main plot bones still stick out, however sawed-off, not to mention obscured by a barrage of barely contextualized spectacle. In one, U.S. military advisor Col. Jack Johnson (Willis) trains a squadron of Chinese pilots trying to fend off the Japanese invasion that started two years earlier in 1937. Seung-Heon Song, William Chan and Nicholas Tse play the chief flyboys he yells at between perilous missions.
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Meanwhile, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck across treacherous terrain, carrying top-secret cargo. En route, he reluctantly acquires passengers including a teacher (Ma Su) and students whose school has been bombed; a resourceful but slippery possible spy (Gent Le); and a government scientist (Wu Gang) delivering specially bred piglets that might avert famine. At the same time, ordinary citizens in provisional capital Chongqing are under relentless attack by the Imperial Air Force — though somehow that doesn’t stop Fan Wei from presiding over a mahjong tournament that continues despite all adversity.
One suspects these strands were once meant to have a grand, interweaving old-school sweep under the direction of Xiao Feng (“Hushed Roar”). But “Air Strike” feels like a movie whose populist yet complicated narrative elements have been haphazardly pared to the nub, while the money shots — all things that go boom, as a great many do here — were left intact.
Unfortunately, they turn out to be more of a liability than a selling point. Though estimates of the film’s budget have ranged all over the map (from $22 million to three times that amount), the price tag was surely high enough to render surprising the shoddiness of the effects in myriad scenes of air combat and cities under fire. Such imagery’s video-game quality only trivializes scenes of mass destruction, which in turn often reach for a crude tear-jerking effect by throwing anonymous children in harm’s way.
The team-credited script piles on a Westernized series of popcorn action-flick perils, credulity-stretching stunts, and protagonists’ attempts to out-macho one another via fistfights and noble sacrifices. In the English-language version reviewed, awkward ESL dialogue clichés (one Chinese pilot earnestly entreats Willis with “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!”) are not helped by the fact that individual actors sometimes seem to have been dubbed by multiple voices. (Willis gives a late pre-raid toast that sounds nothing like him.)
Other elements are less cluttered than simply arbitrary. If the “special appearances” by stars like Adrien Brody and Fan Bingbing are so abbreviated one wonders why they’re here at all, Rumer Willis has even less screen time — and third billing, nonetheless. The additions of comic relief and romantic interests could hardly feel any more inorganically stuck-on. An initially ubiquitous use of onscreen text to identify locations, characters, and even military equipment soon drops off to nothing. All this results in a film that is loud and busy, yet lacks any tonal consistency or narrative center — we’re never quite sure where whatever’s going on at present fits into an ill-defined bigger picture.
Yet certain aspects are polished and impressively scaled enough to suggest a movie that was perhaps never going to be inspired, but at least once had a coherent, ambitious scope. Many sequences on the ground involve imposing crowds and sets (Huaiqing Mao is the production designer), though they’re seldom glimpsed for long. The only thing here that doesn’t feel curtailed is the eight-minute closing credits crawl, no doubt featuring many names whose work is no longer much in evidence onscreen. (Evidence that “Air Strike” continues to suffer editorial indignities was provided this week by an online U.K. DVD review listing a runtime 20 minutes longer than the U.S. cut.)
In addition to Gibson’s ambiguous contribution (in some advance publicity he was curiously listed as the art director), there are also “consultant” credits for other luminaries, including late cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. One assumes these are more honorary designations than evidence of real input, as despite some handsome aerial shots and a very wide aspect ratio, the overall look (beyond those sub-par effects) is pedestrian.
Veteran stunt coordinator Bruce Law is billed as “action director,” and the non-CG physicality is indeed splashy, yet of an ilk that would be more appropriate in a Jackie Chan caper than a WW2 epic based on real historical events. (Too many vehicles crash into too many buildings simply so we can see things get smashed.) One design contribution that is at least conventionally appropriate is Wang Liguang’s score, which is duly performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
The starry Chinese cast, many among them barely utilized, works hard to dimensionalize roles that remain stubbornly, sometimes cartoonishly one-note. The three Americans each manage to be bad in entirely different ways: One local pilot’s snipe that “This Yank thinks he’s a hard-ass” pretty well sums up Willis Sr.’s Sgt. Rock-like turn, Brody sports the appalled, disheveled look of a man who has no idea what he’s doing here, and Ms. Willis makes an appearance so brief and irrelevant you might wonder why her role wasn’t edited out entirely.